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Eating Mushrooms Isn’t Like Smoking a Joint

Oakland follows Denver's lead in decriminalizing psilocybin and other psychedelic plants.

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Psilocybe Cubensis - PHOTO BY MÄDI
  • Photo by Mädi
  • Psilocybe Cubensis

In one sense — perhaps the most important sense — the Oakland City Council's decision last week to follow Denver's lead in decriminalizing "magic mushrooms" and other psychedelic plants and fungi such as peyote and ayahuasca makes sense: just like cannabis, they are "natural." How can you outlaw something that grows from the ground?

Certainly, it's hard to justify sending people to jail over possession of mushrooms, and only the most ardent drug warriors still think we should. In both Denver (which decriminalized via a ballot measure last month that passed by a tiny margin) and in Oakland, one of the justifications for decriminalization was some variation on: "Police and prosecutorial resources would be better spent elsewhere."

While that's true, it's not as if the Oakland or Denver police departments — or any police departments anywhere — have been distracted away from serious crime because the cops have been so busy busting people for having 'shrooms. Oakland police have arrested only 19 people over the past five years for possessing psilocybin. In Denver, officials have mounted just 11 prosecutions in three years.

Much more compelling is the testimony of people who say psilocybin, in particular, has helped them heal from various maladies. Psilocybin "saved my life," said one man, who told city council members that it enabled him to break his addiction to heroin.

But while decriminalizing these so-called entheogenic substances might seem like the next step after legalizing cannabis, even proponents say the differences are too vast to lump the two together. Like cannabis, mushrooms can be very helpful in a clinical sense. But unlike cannabis, they can also be extremely dangerous.

"Under legalization, you would have big companies not just making mushrooms available but aggressively marketing them to people, as we're seeing with cannabis," said Michael Pollan, author of books including The Ominivore's Dilemma and The Botany of Desire, and a lecturer at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. "But psilocybin is a very different drug. There are people who shouldn't take it — people with a personal or family history of schizophrenia, for example — and on high doses it is imperative that people have sitters or guides."

Pollan's newest book, How To Change Your Mind, is an exploration of the potential usefulness of psychedelic drugs to treat various mental-health maladies. He's not opposed to decriminalization, but warns that great care is needed. Compared to cannabis, "there are greater psychological risks here, and until we know how to safely deliver the experience, legalization strikes me as too risky."

Under decriminalization, Oakland police will now put enforcement down among its lowest priorities (which means it won't be a priority at all), and the city is forbidden from prosecuting people for possessing or using entheogenic substances. Commercial sales are still not allowed, nor is possession on school property. And people caught driving under the influence of mushrooms can still be prosecuted.

Decriminalizing mushrooms is one more step away from the old, discredited "war on drugs" ethos that has ruled American policy for decades. Much of the rhetoric surrounding these decisions by Denver and Oakland sounds a lot like the rhetoric that surrounded the legalization of medical, and then recreational cannabis.

One realm where cannabis and entheogenic substances are similar is in healthcare. Just as cannabis can help relieve seizures, pain, nausea, and possibly other maladies, there is evidence that psilocybin — administered under the guidance of an expert — can help people get over addictions to nicotine, alcohol, and other drugs, and relieve the symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. As with cannabis, the science is nascent (thanks largely to our decision to criminalize all these substances decades ago) but promising on several fronts. Also like cannabis, there is no known lethal dose of psilocybin, and it's not addictive.

But the differences between cannabis and substances like psilocybin remain vast. Enhanced cultivation techniques have pushed levels of THC (the stuff in cannabis that gets you high) far above the dreams of even the most avid 1970s stoner, and unpracticed (or even veteran) users of pot might ingest too much and have a deeply unpleasant experience. But the potential effects of psilocybin are of a different order entirely. You might eat some 'shrooms and be essentially functional. Or you might eat some 'shrooms and basically leave the planet for several hours. And often, you can't know which it will be. You can have bad trips, and they can be nightmarish freakouts. As a recreational drug, psilocybin isn't even in the same league with cannabis.

Carlos Plazola, one of the main advocates for Oakland's decriminalization effort, agrees. In fact, Plazola, the chairman of Decriminalize Nature Oakland, is outright against the recreational use of entheogenic substances. "These are healing tools," he told the East Bay Express. "They're not for partying." Now that decriminalization is happening, the task of education begins, and part of that has to be letting people know of the risks, as well as the potential rewards. On this, Plazola's group will work with the city to reach out to residents. The council's decision included language mandating that people with severe mental problems be advised to seek clinical mental-health assistance before trying psilocybin, and then to do so only with the help of an expert guide. Plazola said everyone should have a guide, regardless of their prior condition.

Plazola said he took psilocybin once, and realized, "Holy shit, these things are powerful." But he also concluded, "It was so powerful that it helped me achieve what I needed to achieve," which was to "overcome some childhood trauma" that had been plaguing him for 35 years. He has no particular plans to take any more, but he might do so in order to renew those effects. For now, he said, "I am still having epiphanies, six or seven months later."

However, he said he is dead set against anyone turning entheogenic substances into a business. "They should not be in dispensaries," he said. "They should not be commodified."

Meanwhile, mushrooms, peyote, and other similar substances are, like cannabis, still illegal under federal law. There are efforts in various states to decriminalize, including a ballot measure in Oregon slated for next year, and an effort has begun to do the same in California. Plazola thinks the best bet is to work at the city and state levels first, "to create communities around it," before taking their case to the feds. His Oakland-based group has had inquiries from people in about 50 cities across the country, he said.

It might seem counterintuitive given some of the censorious figures now at the highest levels of the federal government, but it seems like the "war on drugs" might be coming to a close. 

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